Melody and Melodrama

Brief Encounter (1945)

illustration by Tom Ralston

There’s a scene in Barbra Streisand’s 1996 film, The Mirror Has Two Faces, in which Jeff Bridges’ character expresses his disgust with the music that plays over a particularly romantic moment from David Lean’s 1945 drama, Brief Encounter.

“Listen to that music,” says Bridges. “It’s so manipulative! Doesn’t it just infuriate you?”

“Yeah, I’m livid,” responds Streisand, gazing longingly back toward the television screen.

This scene is funny for several reasons. In Streisand’s film, the above exchange takes place over a quick workout sesh; the offscreen dialogue initially leads us to believe that the vigorous activity might be sex, but no. Instead, Bridges does sit-ups while Streisand holds his legs down. It’s a decidedly unromantic moment juxtaposed against the sweeping, symphonic bittersweetness of Lean’s film.

Moreover, it’s funny that we’re led to believe the activity might be sex because Streisand and Bridges aren’t having any. They enter their marital agreement on platonic terms—a marriage built solely upon solid companionship and mutually high intelligence. Streisand’s character, Rose, is a romantic at heart. Gregory Larkin (Bridges) has sought out a relationship with Rose for the very reason that he does not find her attractive, thus preventing sex from getting in the way of his work.

Finally, not unlike Laura and Alec of Brief Encounter, Rose and Gregory’s relationship develops out of a deep sense of kinship and steadily grows into something much more passionate. Greg has no idea that the romance he disdains so deeply will one day be his fate.

The contentious music in question is Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2, and it makes up the entirety of the score of Lean’s film for one very good reason: it’s breathtaking. It’s devastating. It’s glorious. (Okay, fine. Three reasons.) There’s an undeniable sense of melodrama to Rachmaninoff’s piece. It embodies romance in its purest, most powerful form—that is, it embodies a specific type of romance in its purest, more powerful form. Namely: the doomed romance.

Brief Encounter follows the story of a woman racked with guilt, fantasizing about revealing to her husband the secret love affair she’s been enmeshed in for a few short weeks. The film is structured as a wistful confession told by a sensible person attempting to grapple with heartache in the most sensible way possible.

Part of what makes Laura and Alec’s romance so devastating is not that it leads to their mutual destruction, à la Romeo and Juliet; nor that they fall out of love with one another; nor that they simply can’t make it work, no matter how hard they try. Rather, what makes their romance so heart-rending is the sense of duty that prevents either of them from abandoning their respective families. Instead, they both go to great lengths, at the price of their own happiness, to assure that their families remain intact. It’s the fact that they’re both so excessively noble—despite the strength of their feelings for one another—that only makes the viewer want that happy ending for them even more.

Or, perhaps, what makes their romance truly devastating is the fact that they ever had to meet at all. They both could easily have gone about their lives perfectly happy, perfectly oblivious to the existence of the other, had it not been for that fateful day in the refreshment room of the Milford Junction railway station. Laura gets a “piece of grit” in her eye while standing on the platform, and Alec—a general practitioner—helps her get it out. As the film’s title suggests, it’s a chance meeting, a random crossing of paths, or maybe even the mischievous hand of fate playing a wicked trick on two unsuspecting, otherwise contented individuals.


By turns crashing, overwhelming, and unbearably splendid—as well as dark, brooding, and furtive—the Rachmaninoff embodies the fears as well as the joy, the heartache as well as the explosive chemistry, that defines Laura and Alec’s relationship. The three movements of the piece (the Moderato, the Adagio sostenuto, and the Allegro scherzando) are broken up and interwoven throughout the film.

Within the film’s confessional-style framework, Laura recounts the entire story of her great but forbidden romance as she sits in the living room of her home on the evening of her final day with Alec. Her husband, Fred—by Laura’s own description, “medium height, brown hair, kindly, unemotional, and not delicate at all”—sits on the sofa across from her, working on his crossword puzzle. She helps him with the missing seven-letter word from a line by Keats: romance. Already clearly distracted, Laura opts to switch on the radio, almost in the hope of drowning out her own thoughts. But as the Rachmaninoff pipes into the room, she slips away from this reality and into one of reminiscence. Her internal thoughts serve as the narration of the tragic tale, unfurling before our eyes via flashback. The Concerto fades in and out of her mind, mingling with the memories, accentuating the highs and lows of her whirlwind romance. Fred is none the wiser.

Rachmaninoff’s music blends beautifully throughout the movie, but to avoid getting carried away and transcribing it in its entirety, I will point to only a few key scenes:

Near the start, as the radio plays and Laura settles in to darn a tablecloth (or some such ubiquitous household fabric), the camera slowly moves in to capture her forlorn expression, her wide, concerned eyes, her tired face as she gazes upon her husband. She begins to plead with him, silently, just as the French horn—arguably the most melancholic of all the horns—begins to play. Her voice begins as a whisper, just barely audible:

“Fred. Fred. Dear Fred. There’s so much that I want to say to you.”

This solo comes near the end of the first movement, and it emerges in clear, steady notes that form a melody of quiet longing.

“You’re the only one in the world with enough wisdom and gentleness to understand.”

Shortly, the bassoon joins in duet with the horn, adding a deeper, more resigned voice to the mix. 

“If only it were somebody else’s story and not mine. As it is, you’re the only one in the world that I can never tell. Never, never.”

Quietly, the strings rejoin in an unsettling tremolo before the piano re-enters, accompanied by the brass, steadily ascending, building tension.

“Because even if I waited until we were old, old people and told you then, you’d be bound to look back over the years and be hurt. And oh, my dear, I don’t want you to be hurt.”

The camera switches to show Fred from over Laura’s shoulder. He scratches his face with a pen, focused intently on his crossword. This portion of the Concerto resolves just slightly before settling into a more subdued, delicate phrase from the piano—increasingly biting in the sharp severity of its slow, deliberate notes. Underneath, the low strings establish an undercurrent of uncertainty, of concern.

“You see, we’re a happily married couple and must never forget that…You are my husband. And my children are upstairs in bed…This is my whole world. And it’s enough. Or, rather, it was…”

Laura speaks (or, rather, thinks) these words as if to convince herself of their truth. She loves her husband and insists upon it but cannot deny that she has fallen in love with someone else, too. She is not someone easily taken in by infatuation—she understands her life and her responsibilities—and yet she cannot ignore the feelings she has felt, and she cannot escape the pain they now inflict upon her. In this scene, the selection from Rachmaninoff’s Concerto underscores the complexity of Laura’s emotions and the conflicted nature of her quiet confession. From longing to remorse, from fear to anxiety, from disbelief to reassurance. The score shapes an otherwise simple scene with very few cuts into something vastly more complicated and intimate. We can hear the evolution of Laura’s anxieties in the music, and this allows us to enter her world—her mind, her heart—more deeply.

At the peak of the romance, about midway through the film, the Concerto momentarily takes on a more playful role. Laura and Alec have just admitted their feelings to each other and shared a kiss in the shadows of the subway between train platforms. Laura recalls the train ride home spent fantasizing about the glamorous life she and Alec might have together. She smiles at her own face reflected back at her on the dark surface of the window. She notes that she felt “quite wildly happy. Like a romantic schoolgirl, like a romantic fool.” The music in this scene is drawn from the third movement of the Concerto. It’s a particularly energetic section—almost frenzied, chaotic. The music segues into a series of imagined scenes, played out on the reflection of the train window, the Rachmaninoff replaced by the sounds that Laura’s fantasies conjure up: she and Alec dance to a waltz in a ballroom, elaborate crystal chandeliers hung from the ceiling; they take their seats in a box at an opera house—the sounds of the orchestra tuning up before the performance surround them—decked out in glamorous clothes, jewels; they kiss in a gondola in Venice, the “sound of mandolins coming to [them] over the water.” The Rachmaninoff re-enters—reality slowly drifting back into the frame—as Laura’s reflection becomes visible overtop the images playing in the window. The music here is drawn from the first movement, a moment between the piano and lower strings. The former hammers out a forlorn refrain, the latter conjuring an almost ethereal melody. Then, they swiftly fade away. The camera pulls back, Laura’s expression falters, and the English countryside rematerializes beyond the window that was, briefly, a screen.

Finally, to return to the much-contested musical moment in Streisand’s film, a theme from near the start of the first movement recurs several times throughout Brief Encounter. It begins with a sweet, warm, affectionate tune from the strings, and is rebutted by a haunting, slightly mournful piano. During the specific scene in question, the star-crossed couple leans against the wall of a stone bridge, and Alec wraps an arm around Laura to brace her against the cold.

“Happy?” he asks.

“No, not really,” she replies.

The piano understands her dilemma—the bittersweet nature of her love for him. This is the melody that serves as the film’s emotional undercurrent: it is drama, it is pleasure, it is pain. It is longing. The scene climaxes with a passionate kiss as the pair reaffirm the overwhelming power of their feelings for one another. The music explodes as their lips connect, the strings crying out in desperation as the piano concludes its melodic phrase. There’s nothing particularly visually exciting about this scene, likely shot on a soundstage, a rear projection filling in the sky and trees in the background. Thus, the weight of this intense moment rests largely upon three key performances—that of Celia Johnson, of Trevor Howard, but also of pianist Eileen Joyce and the National Symphony Orchestra, who deliver Rachmaninoff’s crucial musical contribution.


Is music too powerful a tool? When combined with effective images, does music give the creator too much power over an audience? After all, there’s a reason that Gregory Larkin won’t face the television as he passes judgment against Lean’s film: “It’s so manipulative!” He hears the music, sure, but he isn’t listening. He isn’t watching. He refuses to, because deep down he knows that if he did, he too would be overcome. Are the filmmakers in cahoots with Rachmaninoff? Have they concocted a whole nefarious plan to manipulate our emotions? To Gregory’s complaint, I reply, the music doesn’t so much manipulate us as give us a nudge. The music’s job isn’t to tell us how to feel, but to signal where we are in the story, where the story is heading—to help us to better understand the things we can’t gather by simply looking at the screen.

But I take issue with the notion that the film’s persuasive abilities lie solely within the power of the score. Celia Johnson makes the film. Don’t misunderstand—Brief Encounter has an excellent script, adapted from a Noël Coward play; it has simple but brilliant photography; it has an exceptional performance from Trevor Howard. But watching Laura’s face the moment she falls in love with Alec, at a table in the tea room as they wait for their respective trains, as he explains esoteric medical terminology that she couldn’t care less about…this scene makes me believe not in the power of love, or the beauty of human connection, but rather in the great wonder—the combination of this director and that performer, this producer and that screenwriter, this cinematographer and that composer—the great wonder that is the movies. Specifically, the movies that allow us to feel, and that allow us to feel the kinds of amazing things we don’t always get to feel in our day-to-day lives.

As wonderful a job as Celia Johnson does at showing us that she’s in love, or that her mind is wandering, or that the guilt is eating her alive, she can only pull so much weight. If Celia Johnson shows us how Laura feels, then Rachmaninoff tells us. The music embodies these emotions by way of a universal language. It communicates feeling in a way that no other medium can. So, when Laura falls in love, we don’t only see the way that her face transforms, the way her eyes light up, the way she tilts her head just slightly in fascination; we also hear the tiny symphony that plays in her heart as she realizes that her feelings are already too far gone. Thus, Johnson and Rachmaninoff work in harmony, in tandem, to paint the full emotional picture of the story.

That said, the music doesn’t become a crutch. There are plenty of scenes without such accompaniment, in which cases, for instance, a dramatic shift in lighting might take over to supplement a performance—such as in a scene near the very end, as Laura zeros in on the sound of Alec’s train leaving the station, just after their final goodbye has been interrupted by the intrusion of an obnoxious acquaintance. Or the careful close-in on Laura paired with a slow but significant twist of the camera—a harsh angle suddenly breaking the even, respectable exterior that our protagonist has managed to uphold through it all—and a train whistle blaring from somewhere within the station. The camera remains tilted for the duration of the quick, climactic sequence that follows, as Laura runs onto the platform, intent on flinging herself onto the tracks. But she stops herself as the train speeds past. The camera returns to its usual, level position, and Laura returns to the refreshment room, resigned to the life that she must go on living.


Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 marked the end of a lengthy hiatus for the composer, born from the poor critical reception of his First Symphony. In this way, the work embodies a triumphant reemergence of Rachmaninoff from the darkness of despair. And thus, within the context of this tangentially relevant historical aside, it is perhaps safe to assume—or at least to hope—that Laura, too, will reemerge from her despair. The comfort she receives from her unwitting husband at the film’s conclusion—“You’ve been a long way away. Thank you for coming back to me”—tells us that she is not without love and compassion in her life.

At times, our vulnerabilities are just as valuable as our strengths—sometimes, even more so. I argue, then, that the melodrama does so much more than simply ‘manipulate’ our emotions. It allows us the opportunity—gives us the excuse—to indulge in the kind of emotional catharsis we don’t always allow ourselves to give into. Our feelings belong to us. No film can force us to feel a certain way. They merely allow us the space and time to feel. It’s a necessary exodus of the soul.